Since the tragedy at Sandy Hook, we have noticed an increase in first responders, primarily law enforcement, conducting full scale exercises at schools using staff and students. These exercises are also coming under increased scrutiny by the media and broader public, as reported this past weekend in the NBC stories Fake Blood and Blanks: Schools Stage Active Shooter Drills and Do School Shooting Drills Go Too Far? Experts Weigh In.
While we certainly support full-scale exercises, we have concerns about student and staff well-being in exercises without proper mental health procedures in place. Our colleague and internationally-recognized school psychology expert, Dr. Scott Poland, recently said:
“I prefer tabletop exercises and practicing moving students and locking doors etc. but without sounds of gunfire. If a realistic drill has to be conducted then staff, not students, should be involved. I am concerned that students involved in realistic drills may have preexisting psychological issues and previous history of losses and that the drill might prompt a severe emotional reaction. I also recommend that students who participate in realistic drills be given a pre-test and a post-test so we can determine the effects of the drill.”
There is a risk that full-scale exercises could be conducted without proper planning and development. The best practice in the field is to at least conduct tabletops on the topic prior to full-scale. If first responders do a tabletop with local officials prior to the full-scale exercise, many student well-being issues would likely arise and be discussed.
To first responders and school community partners who are planning this type of student involved event, we encourage that they take the proper steps in emergency preparedness practices and conduct the proper planning in advance to minimize the trauma to staff, students, and ultimately students’ parents. Having the right partners from the various professional disciplines (education, mental health, communications, support staff, parents, students, etc.) at the table for planning will help prevent an unsafe and embarrassing exercise.
School administrators must partner with first responders, but educators must also recognize that as well-meaning as the police and others may be, they do not always recognize how this type of exercise can traumatize students. School leaders are first and foremost responsible for the students’ well-being. If this type of exercise is proposed by local first responders, then educators should consult with local mental health professionals and include them in the planning process, as well as in the recommended tabletops.
Dr. Poland pointed out that one of the most important student outcomes is confidence in their school and community leaders:
“When we travel on an airplane, there is a short safety briefing and the passengers are confident that the flight crew knows what to do in an emergency. Schools need to train staff and assure students that staff know what to do. Students who are confident will often listen to the nearest adult and do what they are told to do in an emergency.”
Community confidence in school leaders is critical, but also fragile. Damage can be quickly done to the confidence students, staff, parents, and the community have in their principals, superintendents, and school board members.
We all want to make our schools as safe as possible and we applaud local first responders in their efforts to keep schools safe. But we also must proceed in a reasonable and responsible manner. Failing to do so will damage the well-intended efforts of school officials and their first responders, and ultimately undermine the credibility of such drills in the eyes of the broader school community.
Consultant to National School Safety and Security Services
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